We don’t know all that much about the virtual unknown, or that new world being created daily by the World Wide Web and the relentless advance of technology. But some things are indeed clear.
One of the clearest is that college will never again be the same experience it once was.
Then came developments in online educational software like Blackbaord, Desire2Learn, and E-Companion. From that point forward, there has been nothing but change in the college learning environment.
Virtual vs. Real Classrooms
So much so that today we have to distinguish between virtual classrooms and residential classrooms when we’re talking about college courses.
Why? Because a ton of teaching these days is done from a corner of Starbucks with students stretched out across the globe downloading the class from one time zone to another.
According to the Sloan Foundation’s 2007 report, “Online Nation: Five Years of Growth in Online Learning,” the rate of growth in college online enrollments has surpassed the growth rate in residential campus enrollments.
Additionally, the report notes:
- Almost 3.5 million students took at least one online course during the fall 2006 term, nearly a 10 percent increase over the number reported in 2005, and double the 2002 enrollments.
- The 9.7 percent growth rate far exceeds the increase in overall college enrollments, which is only 2 percent.
- Nearly 20 percent of all college and university students were taking at least one online course in 2006. That percentage has gone up over the past four years.
- More than 4 million students are enrolled in accredited online college courses inAmerica in 2008-2009.
- Distance learning has gone mainstream and more than two thirds of all accredited colleges now offer distance learning (online) courses.
Not only are so many accredited, residential universities offering online courses, but some – like the University of Memphis – offer entire graduate degree programs online. And this university is part of a statewide online educational program (the Tennessee Regents Online Degree Program) that offers entire degree programs online. Some 8,000 students are enrolled in this RODP online program.
Nationwide, a growing number of online universities, only a few of which have actual residential campuses as well, have sprouted up. Some are more legitimate than others, and some are glorified diploma mills. Among the legitimate online college are Kaplan University, Grand Canyon University, and Walden University. Add to that the online degree programs of recognized residential universities.
The online university you have heard most about is the large, well-established and well-promoted University of Phoenix.
Most universities have found online courses and programs to be cash cows. Tuition is usually the same — even higher in some cases — for online courses as for traditional courses. Yet expenses are much less than for residential classes. Instructors are usually adjuncts, and there is no costly classroom nor lights,heating or cooling expenses.
Online courses are taught in one of two overall ways: synchronous (everyone meets in an online “classroom” at the same time) and asynchronous (students complete course modules on their own and usually engage in threaded online discussion with each other at various times).
Good and Bad Experiences
Like any course, an online course is only as good or as bad as the instructor teaching it. How that instructor takes advantage of the software technology available to teach the class in important. Some online class experiences can be quite good; others are nothing more than correspondence courses.
Sometimes students report their professors are “missing in action,” and complain these instructors don’t check in much online. The danger for any online professor is a kind of “out of sight, out of mind” mentality that can creep in, especially for asynchronous classes. Two or three weeks may pass before a prof gets to that stack of assignments that have been accumulating.
As for online degrees, or degrees earned totally through online programs or online universities, their credibility and acceptance varies in the business and professional worlds. Some programs are seen as more valid than others. Online degree programs of recognized residential universities — like the University of Memphis for example — have greater credibility, generally speaking, than a degree from a university that is totally or almost totally an online school.
In other words, all college degrees are not created equal.
What Kind of Accreditation?
In assessing online programs, it is important to check out not just the degree and courses in it, but to check out the university itself. What kind of quality control does it have that insures all profs are doing their jobs? And just as important: what kind of accreditation does it have? Is it from one of the six recognized regional accrediting bodies? For Oklahoma universities, that is the North Central Association for Colleges and Schools. For my school in California it is the Western Association of Colleges and Schools.
There are some 52 other national accrediting bodies, but few of them have the credibility that these six regional accrediting bodies have. And remember, several schools have no recognized accreditation because a college or university does not have to be accredited to do business in the United States. But transferring course credits from them to an accredited school is often a problem.
Online education can work very well, but it probably works best for students who are self-motivated, organized, and will actually do the work at home by themselves. While there may be some online group work, the individual student back home — or at that corner in Starbucks — will ultimately have to energize himself or herself to do the work.
There is middle ground between doing degree work in residential universities and online universities. Many schools, like my own Azusa Pacific University near Los Angeles, combine residential and online classes. Additionally, individual residential courses also have a companion online site on which the professor posts documents, syllabi, and assignment dropboxes.
Locally, OU and OSU both use Desire2Learn as their online course management systems, and OU’s website says about 40 percent of its instructors incorporate it into their traditional classroom experience, extending that exprience into the world of the Web.
These systems also have built-in virtual classrooms. Sometimes when a professor must be out of town for a conference or presentation, he or she chooses to hold the class online in that virtual classroom. Most students have found this companion online site to be very helpful and add a welcome dimension to the class.